Survey: Elite status does not guarantee student engagement

NSSE report finds enrollment size, selectivity do not always correlate to quality

Institutions' size and selectivity do not necessarily affect student engagement, according to the 16th annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) report.

Approximately 355,000 freshmen and seniors from 622 four-year institutions took the survey, which attempts to measure quality of education and student experience on an institutional level.

Selectivity is 'no guarantee' of engagement

What researchers found is that "there's no guarantee" selectivity or school size translates to student experience, says Alexander McCormick, director of NSSE. When comparing colleges along these lines, he adds, "on a graph, it looks like a seismograph. There's huge bouncing around."

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According to the results, schools of a similar size vary significantly in average levels of student-faculty interactions and effective teaching practices, the two indicators of quality used by NSSE. 

Additionally, when grouped by selectivity tier—as determined by Barron's Profiles of American Colleges—schools' faculty-student interaction also ranged widely. As might be expected, the most selective schools ranked much higher in general than the less-selective ones in their grouping. However, some non- and less-competitive schools scored just as high as very selective ones did.

"Conventional wisdom says that the more selective an institution is, the better it is going to be," says McCormick, but "that’s not systematically true with these two measures."

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For example, Fayetteville State University, a historically black college, accepts three-quarters of applicants, who average about a B-minus in high school GPA. But the school scored higher on teaching and interaction than several of the "most selective" schools that reject two-thirds of their applicants. While Harvey Mudd College freshmen rated the school an average score of 23 out of 60 for student-faculty interactions, Fayetteville State's gave it a 32. 

Shifting the conversation

This should reassure open-admissions schools that serving a large population of at-risk students with fewer resources will not stall them, says McCormick.

More selective schools typically have more money—but the survey focuses on traits that do not typically require funds to improve, such as how often a student and professors speak outside of class and how effectively professors explain course requirements, give feedback, and maintain organization.

'What the survey shows is that colleges are not captives of their circumstances," says McCormick, "None of these things really cost more money." This helps shift the higher education conversation away from reputation, status, and wealth toward effective teaching and learning.

Moreover, the trend appears to continue post-graduation. A recent Gallup-Purdue University study found little relation between an institution's level of prestige and alumni engagement.

Survey critics

But some argue the survey leaves too much leeway in answering questions.

Stephen Porter, a professor at North Carolina State University, says respondents do not have a common frame of reference. What "very much" means to one student might mean another to someone else, he says. He also questions whether a student can judge a professor's organization level.

"Given what we know about wealth and selectivity in higher education," says Porter, arguing attending a well-endowed college with developed programs is the same as commuting to an underfunded school "does not seem at all plausible."

McCormick responds that student responses tend to align at the institutional level, and points out that other research has upheld the correlation between clear teaching and student engagement (Berrett, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/20; New, Inside Higher Ed, 11/20).

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